“To live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk.” — Robert McKee, Story
“Life is all about not knowing, and then doing something anyway.” — Mark Manson
When I was reading Frankl’s idea that the meaningful thing to do when confronted with avoidable suffering is to avoid it, my first thought was, oh, does this make decision-making simpler? Avoid suffering! Got it.
But the dilemma of leaving behind unnecessary suffering is actually at the crux of many difficult decisions. Because sometimes it is not at all clear which path will lead to less suffering. We are sometimes confronted with decisions in which there is no great answer, no win-win-win that Michael Scott (The Office) championed, no choice that effectively avoids all suffering. At which point it is a determination as to which is the lesser evil, and the answer to that question is sometimes not at all obvious.
What we are left to navigate, then, is a map of decision points. Our choices shape our lives and give them meaning, and they also determine what stories we set down now that change into our pasts with the passing of time. Those stories, which can be re-told, re-interpreted, and even subverted, in turn play their part in forming our identities.
And sometimes we do not know. And sometimes, not knowing, we take large risks. And sometimes those risks do not pay off the way we wish they would.
But a life with no risk–besides being impossible, since walking out your door is a risk, as is choosing to stay home–becomes a life of less meaning. Moments matter more because they are impermanent and cannot last. Meaning is created from change, from development, from action and experience. We cannot know and yet we act, and from that action we illustrate who we are. Sometimes we even create who we are. And this is the case regardless of outcome.
I’ve spoken before about the importance of actions, of how I’ve been training myself to pay more attention to people’s actions and less attention to their words (particularly when the two don’t match up). Recently I’ve been thinking not only of how actions define others, but how my actions define me, and more particularly, the relationship between actions and emotions.
For a long time I was baffled by the common wisdom that we get to choose how to react to any given situation. “What was the choice?” I wondered. If someone did something and I felt angry or hurt or sad about it, well then, I was angry or hurt or sad. I couldn’t magically choose not to feel those things.
But what I realize now is that yes, of course I will feel whatever emotions might be present inside me. And it is difficult to choose what those might be in specific situations (although there are ways to foster more compassionate and/or positive outlooks in general). Sometimes emotions just happen. But emotions do not have to define me in the same way that my actions do.
Indeed, in many cases my actions will result in changing my emotions. And my emotions can be valuable indicators of when action might be needed and sometimes even of the types of actions I need to consider. Using my emotions as a kind of barometer to help determine action leads to them defining me less than they did previously, when they just sat there, an inert lump in my stomach.
But for this to work, risk is still necessary. Uncertainty is still present. I don’t always know the right thing to do.
Sometimes there is no right thing to do.
And I think part of what Robert McKee and Mark Manson are saying is that this state of uncertainty is okay. Because the uncertainty makes our decisions matter.
And then these decisions imbue our lives with the meaning we crave.